Citizens Property Insurance strains to pull in belt on spending

The Maryland insurance executive charged with cleaning house at Citizens Property Insurance has had trouble sticking to the tighter travel expense policy he put in place.

Since Barry Gilway became Citizens CEO in June, he has stayed in a hotel at nearly twice Citizens’ room rate cap, charged liquor to a corporate credit card in violation of company rules, submitted expense forms late and had to be reminded to include itemized receipts.

A review of travel costs shows that Citizens has taken some steps toward frugality since the Herald/Times revealed in August that executives were enjoying lavish meals and five-star hotel stays at the same time the state-run insurer was aggressively trying to raise rates.

But even with a new policy designed to rein in costs, old habits die hard.

Some executives, including Gilway, have failed to file expense reports within the required 15 days of a trip. They’re still spending hundreds of dollars to change airplane tickets. Co-workers are still dining with each other at company expense at high-end restaurants like Tampa’s Capital Grille and Orlando’s Ocean Prime.

Recent expense reports also indicate that Citizens could have done more in the past to hold down costs at Florida hotels.

For a board meeting in February, 2012, Citizens paid $179 a night for employees to stay at the Peabody in Orlando.

But after Citizens imposed a $150 cap on in-state lodging, the Peabody agreed to reduce its rate to $149 a night for a December meeting.

"We had to work very diligently to get the rate down and it was a one-time thing they were able to get done for us since we had done business with them previously,’’ said Christine Ashburn, a Citizens spokesperson. "Due to their rates we will no longer be working with them going forward.’’

Expense reports filed since the travel policy changed in October also show that good hotels in out-of-state cities were available at much lower rates than what Citizens executives customarily spent. Before last fall, Sharon Binnun, the chief financial officer, typically stayed in New York City hotels costing $350 a night and up. But for a recent trip, she booked a room at the swank Marriott Marquis in Times Square at a nightly rate of just $204.

Under the new travel policy, Citizens executives are allowed to charge the company up to $60 a day for meals, still far higher than the $36-a-day limit set by other state agencies. On numerous occasions in the past few months, executives sought only partial reimbursement for expensive meals to avoid exceeding the cap.

More changes may be in the works.

"We currently are reviewing our expense procedures to develop and implement policies that more closely align with state policies and expect to have the revised policy in place in early March,’’ Ashburn said.

Last year, Gov. Rick Scott called on his inspector general to investigate Citizens after the Herald/Times reported on extravagant spending and allegations of corporate misconduct and waste, including hundreds of thousands of dollars in severance packages paid to executives who resigned amid scandal.

Scott weighed in again last week after the Herald/Times reported that Binnun and other top executives had received raises between 12 and 24 percent. Scott called the raises "foolish" and urged the executives to return them. Gilway and Citizens board chairman Carlos Lacasa have repeatedly said high salaries and travel expenses are justified as the cost of doing business in the competitive insurance world.

Still, expense reports filed since the new travel policy took effect raise questions about whether certain trips were worth the cost.

On the afternoon of Nov. 5, Gilway flew from Jacksonville to Tampa, where he met with Binnun and a consultant to discuss "depopulation’’ — Citizens’ effort to downsize and become more efficient. Gilway and Binnun then joined Lacasa and three others for dinner at Armani’s, a posh restaurant atop the Grand Hyatt hotel. Even with an "eat more" discount of $134, the food bill plus tip came to $320.42. Gilway charged the tab to his Citizens corporate card at the request of Lacasa, who told him the meal qualified as a business expense. In addition to veal shank, salmon and oysters, the six consumed an unspecified amount of "wine and spirits’’ that Lacasa paid for at his own expense, according to a note on Gilway’s expense form.

Gilway spent the night at a Tampa hotel and flew back to Jacksonville the next morning, ending a trip that took less than 24 hours but cost $1,052. He filed his expense report Dec. 10, almost two weeks after the 15-day limit specified by the new policy. And he wrote on the form that he had been in Miami, not Tampa.

Among the reasons for Citizens’ high travel costs has been the practice of sending numerous employees to board meetings held at hotels around the state.

Last spring, Citizens spent nearly $28,000 for two days of meetings at a Tampa hotel. After the new policy took effect, Citizens held a board meeting in Orlando, where the Peabody’s reduced rate helped hold costs for the 27 attendees to $16,600. The tab included catered lunches and a $50 room service dinner for Gilway.

At night, groups of Citizens employees hit two of Orlando’s top restaurants, Vito’s Chop House and Ocean Prime, some racking up individual tabs of $90 or more. They were reimbursed up to $60 per dinner, more than three times the $19 limit on dinners set by most state agencies.

Ashburn, the Citizens spokeswoman, said only "essential staff’’ will attend future board meetings to ensure a "significant reduction’’ in costs.

Since the travel policy was tightened, Citizens executives have submitted justifications for hotel stays that exceeded the new limits.

Last month, Binnun wrote a two-page memo to Citizens accounting department to justify spending $379 a night at the Fairmont Princess Hotel in Bermuda, where she negotiated cheaper rates on reinsurance. Such trips saved Citizens $47 million in 2012, she said. (Binnun paid $633 a night in the same hotel last year after upgrading to "gold status.’’)

At a late October industry conference, Binnun and Gilway each paid $365 a night for rooms at the Surf & Sand Resort in Laguna Beach, Calif.

On the receipt Binnun submitted to Citizens accountants was a handwritten note: "This hotel was booked (in July) before CPIC changed the policy regarding out of state hotels.’’

Still, Binnun and Gilway had time to switch to less expensive lodgings. As stated on its invoices, Surf & Sand permits bookings to be canceled up to 72 hours before check-in.